Serving up French food with heart

The original Le Bistro Café had been a fixture on the Halifax culinary scene since it first opened in 1976, and many were sad to see it close just over a decade ago. But nobody was sadder about it than Liz Ingram-Chambers, who’d managed the restaurant for nine years. She had left a year before it closed because of changes made by new owners, and was heartbroken. “I was devastated. It was like I’d lost something or gone through a divorce,” says Ingram-Chambers, who’d watched standards at the restaurant go down, prices go up, and the charm and attention to detail that had made it so special disappear. Ingram-Chambers felt she had to leave, despite recently becoming a part owner she now had less control than when she just managed the café.

In the years after leaving the café, Ingram-Chambers was busy. She opened a small café and catering business, went on to run the food and beverage department at the Holiday Inn, then moved into sales at the Quality Inn. She had a couple of kids. But Le Bistro Café was never far from her mind. One day while on a sales call at the Maritime Centre right next to the Registry of Joint Stock Companies (where one registers business names), she decided to see whether the name Le Bistro was now available. It was, so she registered it – this time as Le Bistro by Liz – and paid $40 every year to keep it despite not having a restaurant upon which to bestow the name.

Clockwise from top left Mike Sampson, Meaghan Rhuland, Michale Bray, Adam Wigmore, Alix Gray, Liz Ingram-Chambers, Chef Brian Dugas

After Le Bistro Café closed, a couple of other restaurants had operated in its old Park Victoria location (Spice, then Trinity) but hadn’t been able to make it work. In March 2010, Ingram-Chambers got a call from the CEO of the leasing company that owns the building. “He told me that they got my name from two different business people in Halifax who said if he wanted to make a successful restaurant in Park Vic, I was the person to talk to. He said, ‘I’m coming down from Montreal, would you be interested and getting together and talking with me?’”

Of course, Ingram-Chambers was interested. “I called my husband to tell him about it, and ask him what did he think,” she says, “He responded, ‘Oh my God Liz, you’ve been whining about it for 12 years, of course, you’re going to do it again.’” Walking back in those doors was an emotional experience. “I started crying as soon as we walked in because the restaurant was such a mess,” she says. That didn’t put her off though. Here was Ingram-Chambers’ chance to wipe the slate clean and give Halifax back the restaurant they’d loved, with the same care and attention to customer service that seems to be lacking these days.

Starting over

Ingram-Chambers walked into that first meeting armed with recipes and photographs of the old café as inspiration for the new interior. “I already had the vision. I started working with a designer and started putting together a lease agreement with the property managers. At that point everything from the previous restaurant was still here,” she says, “The original agreement was that everything would come to me and I would get a turnkey operation.” As the months went on, a lien against the assets with Revenue Canada meant the kitchen equipment was removed. “There went my designer and contractor because it was going to require an additional $100,000 investment to replace the kitchen equipment.”

Undeterred, Ingram-Chambers went back to her bank and borrowed the money. “Then in February 2011, the whole deal fell through. The property management agency had decided they wanted to put Pizza Delight in instead,” she says, “I said fine, I guess everything happens for a reason. Then in April they called me and said everything was back on, but you’re not getting the kitchen equipment. So I arranged for that, then Revenue Canada came in and took all the furnishings as well, including every last cup and spoon.” The whole process was very challenging, and Ingram-Chambers had kids at home to look after too. At points, Ingram-Chambers says that she felt like giving up. Still, she persisted, and despite the numerous challenges, Ingram-Chambers opened her doors on December 1st, and Le Bistro by Liz was busy from the get-go.

“There was already a huge buzz before we opened. People remembered the original Le Bistro, and they remembered me. We were booked out with Christmas parties, and I figured everything would slow down in January, but it didn’t, it was wonderful,” recalls Ingram-Chambers.

Bringing back the classics

Those who frequented Le Bistro Café back in the day love that this incarnation of the restaurant features many of the same menu items, from the recipes Ingram-Chambers had held on to in the hope that she might, someday, get to open Le Bistro once more. There have been some changes to the classics though, to keep up with the times. “Take for example our Moroccan crêpe, made with chicken, mandarins, water chestnuts and curry sauce wrapped up in a crêpe. Back in the day, we used to buy frozen chunk chicken. These days we buy fresh chicken breast,” she says, “We do a lot more from scratch now than we used to, and I even grow basil in a window-box for our Pizza Margherita.”

Some of those old recipes gave chefs at the restaurant a little trouble. “There’s this seafood minestrone that is just fabulous, filled with haddock, shrimp and scallops. We couldn’t get the consistency right. Our regulars would tell us, and I’d say, “Oh my God I know, we just can’t get it right,” says Ingram-Chambers. The fix? “I got Paul, my old Chef from the 90s, back. He said what do you want me to do first? I said we had to fix the minestrone, we don’t have profiteroles because no chef can seem to get them right, and we have to fix the lemon parfait pie – we can never get it to solidify.”

The menu isn’t wholly retro though, new items have been added –such as their Poulet Moritz, chicken breast stuffed with brie, finished with Serrano ham and sage butter, or Coquilles St Jacques, seared Digby scallops in a Veloute sauce with mushrooms, green onions and duchess potatoes. And things get switched up from time to time, much to the disdain of the regulars (of which there are many).

Le Bistro by Liz has a lot of elderly customers. For them, it is like the restaurant never closed, and they’re hanging out with an old friend whenever they visit. “I have one woman, Eleanor, who is 94 and still comes for lunch three times a week. If she doesn’t show up, I call to make sure she’s okay. She doesn’t have a family, so we’ve kind of adopted her,” Ingram-Chambers says.

The Liz experience

Eating at Le Bistro by Liz is a pleasure not only for the exceptional food but also the way they treat you the second you walk through the door. Ingram-Chambers has no time for pretentious servers. “Who wants a server acting like he’s doing you a favour by waiting on you, treating you like you are inferior?” she says. Staff at her restaurant welcome everyone like family, and that is vitally important to Ingram-Chambers, who works hard to retain the staff that she adores. “My head chef at the moment, I hired him for his first dishwashing job in 1993. We trained him as a line cook, and he apprenticed in Wolfville then became a red seal chef,” Ingram-Chambers says with great pride.

When interviewing servers, Ingram-Chambers likes to filter them by telling them Le Bistro by Liz has a lot of older customers and asking how they feel about that. “I’m looking for somebody that wants to take care of customers – wants to serve them. Having the right staff is the most important thing for me,” she says, “To us, it’s all about treating people like they are in your home, and that’s how
I train my staff. If you had somebody come to your home and they didn’t enjoy what you served, you’d say what else can I get you? Or if they had a special request, you’d take care of that. I find that a lot of restaurants don’t have that heart, they don’t seem to think that’s necessary anymore.”

Being located close to Halifax’s hospitals means that Ingram-Chambers and her team form bonds with many who are forced to spend a lot of time in them, and see the restaurant as a place to escape and recharge. “I had a woman in the day before yesterday. Her husband is in a coma. She was talking to one of my servers, and she started crying on his shoulder, and he’s hugging her and telling her everything is going to be okay. Those customers mean everything to me,” she says. “I’ve had those customers open up and tell me about their lives, and we become close. It’s is about more than just feeding somebody or serving them a drink, the bistro is a restaurant with heart.”

Talking about the relationships that she has with her customers makes Ingram-Chambers well up with tears. It is obvious just how much she cares about them, about the restaurant, and that she is making everything she wanted here happen.

There are definite nods to the restaurant’s past everywhere, from the fig trees Ingram-Chambers worked hard to find in local nurseries, to the much-loved dishes, and the live music that adds such atmosphere to the place. Truth is though if all Le Bistro by Liz had going for it was nostalgia, the business wouldn’t have been sustainable, and people would have stopped coming once the novelty wore off. Liz Ingram-Chambers worked hard to create something unique and continues to do so every single day. Le Bistro by Liz is a success because it has heart, just like the woman behind it.